Volume 12 - Issue 3
Men and women in the churchBy David Wenham
Every Christian is committed to the good news that Jesus is a liberator. But Christians are thoroughly divided over the general question of women’s liberation and over the particular question of woman’s place in the church’s ministry. Some believe that Christ’s liberating work includes liberation from bondage to traditional male/female roles; others believe that patriarchy is part of the divine design for creation and that liberation lies in recognizing the design not in seeking to escape from it.
What does the Bible have to say on the matter? The fact that Christians, including Bible-believing Christians, are so divided over the issue indicates that it is not easy to establish the Bible’s teaching. Three things make the task a difficult one: first, there is the fact that the issue is a very emotive one; second, there are problems in the relevant biblical texts; third, it is not easy, even when one has established the original meaning of a particular text, to think out how the text applies in today’s world. These three difficulties are present in all biblical interpretation to a greater or lesser extent; but they are particularly clearly illustrated in this case.
The problem of prejudice
Scholars sometimes tell us that we must approach the Bible without any presuppositions—with a totally open mind. However, although it is both an academic and theological ideal that we should come to Scripture seeking to listen to it and not to impose our own views and prejudices on it, we are foolish if we think that we can or do come with a blank mind to our studies. In fact the scholars who advocate presuppositionless exegesis often in practice betray their own presuppositions very clearly; and their plea that we should discard our presuppositions is in reality an invitation to those with traditional Christian presuppositions to discard those in favour of other more secular ones!
Few people who have thought about the question of the Bible’s teaching on man and woman can fail to be aware of the difficulty of approaching the issue with anything like objectivity. On the one hand, all of us have been brought up in churches and families (and in a society) where men and women have had particular roles; and the patterns with which we are familiar may well seem normal and right to us. We will be inclined to seize on the scriptural evidence that appears to confirm the rightness of these patterns, and we will feel threatened by those who question our view of things. Those of us who are men may also feel disinclined to see traditional patterns change, because we rather enjoy them; and, of course, some women enjoy them too, whether rightly or wrongly. On the other hand there are now, particularly in Western society, very strong pressures in the other direction: it is, to say the least, fashionable to argue against traditional male/female stereotypes and to advocate the opening up of traditional male roles to women. The trend is so strong in some places that it can be very difficult and uncomfortable to question the new ‘orthodoxy’, even if you think such questioning to be right; and the pressure to read Scripture in a way that fits in with the dominant fashion is strong. Personal factors also enter in again: whereas many men find the feminist trend threatening, many women find it exhilarating and feel really hurt by the traditional patterns that still prevail in church and society; both have vested interests in the outcome of the theological debate.
How is the Christian interpreter to escape the distorting influences of his social situation and background in approaching vexed issues of biblical interpretation? The fact is that we will never achieve perfect objectivity. But we can and should seek to reduce the distortion, first, by recognizing our own sinfulness and selfishness, and so coming to issues in humility and prayerfulness. We need to recognize that we are often wrong and that we are constantly tempted to read Scripture in ways that suit us; we need, therefore, to ask God to correct and mould our undertaking, however hard that may be for us. We must be prepared to change. Too often we come to issues with minds made up and in an almost belligerent spirit, which apart from anything else prevents us from really listening to our fellow Christians in the way that we should.
We need, second, to be aware of the social pressures that we are under: to pretend to be impartial is dangerous. To recognize that we are children of our times, influenced by our upbringing and by social trends, will enable us to allow for this in our interpretation of Scripture, and so to listen to Scripture more sensitively and accurately. Our goal must be to allow God’s Word to be the testing-stone of our ideas, and not (as is so easy) to allow our ideas to be determinative of our understanding of Scripture; a recognition of the social pressures that colour our outlook will help us in this. The teaching of Scripture will not, of course, always contradict the traditions (ancient or modern) of society; many of our traditions are good and God-given. On the other hand, many other traditions and trends are evil, for example the trend towards sexual ‘freedom’ (so-called), and we must constantly be on our guard against allowing our thinking and our lives to be conformed to the ways of the world (Rom. 12:2). Yet other trends and traditions are a mixture of the good and the bad: for example, it is good that we today have learned to respect the cultures and religions of non-Christians, but it is not good (though fashionable) to regard all religions as equally valid ways to God. The challenge, then, is to allow Scripture to judge us and our traditions—whether our ecclesiastical traditions (e.g. on questions such as baptism or ministry), our economic traditions (e.g. whether we are capitalists or socialists), our ethical traditions and our social traditions.
So on the issue of men and women in the church, the question is whether traditional patterns of male/female relationships in family and society are supported or put in question by the teaching of Scripture, or whether—and this is perhaps the most likely situation in a sinful world—Scripture affirms certain aspects of the tradition, and puts in doubt other aspects. Similarly with the modern feminist movement, the question is whether the movement is thoroughly biblical, fundamentally secular, or a mix of good and bad.
Although it is valuable to recognize the interests, traditions and trends that influence us, it is, of course, not always easy or even possible to do so accurately. Many of us are conscious of being quite mixed up in our approach: we are influenced by the traditions of the church and of our childhood, and also by the pulls of modern society; we are influenced by our own self-interest and also by a desire not to allow that to dominate our thinking; we are influenced in one direction or the other by people we know—perhaps by women in ministry and/or by advocates of a particular approach. To recognize that we are mixed up is no bad thing, if it leads us to humility, to a seeking of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to a charitable attitude to other Christians and their views, and to a real and earnest desire to know the truth of Scripture. Indeed such an attitude will be positively conducive to an accurate hearing of God’s word in Scripture.
The biblical data
It would be wrong to suggest that the problems of establishing the biblical teaching on men and women are only the result of our own subjectivity. The biblical data itself poses problems. The biblical data can be divided into two categories: there are particular passages that discuss men and women and their relationships; there are also more general considerations about how men, women and God himself are described in the Bible.
It is not possible to refer to all the relevant passages, but among the most important are, first, the creation narratives of Genesis 1–3. Genesis 1:27 is a key text and relatively uncontroversial: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’: male and female together constitute God’s climactic creation of ‘man’ in his own image. Genesis 2 raises more questions: woman here is described as taken out of man and created for man as a ‘helper suitable for him’—literally ‘a help corresponding to him’ (2:18). Does this imply that woman is seen as having an auxiliary role to that of man? Many commentators deny this, pointing out that the word ‘helper’ need have no such connotations, since it is used elsewhere in the OT of God’s help given to Israel. On the other hand, other interpreters argue that the over-all context of Genesis 2 does point to woman’s ‘helping’ role as being a supportive rather than a leading one. They can claim Paul’s support for this understanding (though see below for further discussion of his teaching). Whichever view is correct, the passage is in no way demeaning to woman: on the contrary, she is a God-given companion, ‘corresponding to’ Adam, and is joyfully welcomed by him as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’. If her role is seen as different from man’s, it is still a complementary and not an inferior one.
Genesis 3 also deserves a mention. In 3:16 the woman is told that ‘your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’. Since this comment is in the context of God’s cursing Adam and Eve for their disobedience, ‘the rule’ of man over woman referred to seems to be an unpleasant fact of life under the curse (like the thorns and thistles referred to a few verses later—a problematic aspect of life after the fall to be controlled, not encouraged) rather than God’s original and intended design for male/female relationships. But whether the thought is of married relationships being spoiled by the introduction of attitudes that are entirely alien to God’s intended order, or of such relationships being spoiled and made unpleasant by the distortion of God-given tendencies (affection and leadership)—compare the preceding reference to the pains of child-birth—is less clear.
It may be worth adding that the question of the effect of the fall on male/female relationships is an important one. It is possible to argue that the biblical teaching about man being ‘head’ of woman and about women submitting to men is less an expression of God’s created order and more an accommodation to the unideal situation of the human race after the fall. On the basis of this it can be argued that in the church as the new creation of Christ we should not be content to go on living according to the post-fall order of things—with man ‘ruling’ woman—but should recover the original intention of God, as expressed in the NT, for example, in Galatians 3:28. Whether it is plausible to read either Genesis or Paul’s teaching about the order of creation and the place of submission in the Christian life this way is debatable. We shall be looking at the Pauline passages in due course.
The other OT passage that deserves a mention, even though it is not controversial, is Proverbs 31:10–31, where there is a description, unparalleled in Scripture, of the noble wife. She is a powerful and impressive person in her own right, an effective businesswoman, though one whose business is the management of and provision for her household.
In the NT it is Paul who speaks most of male/female relationships and who causes most of our exegetical problems. However, before looking at some of the problem passages, various fairly uncontroversial points are worth making. First, despite some common misjudgments, Paul was a firm believer in male and female equality in Christ. This is made very clear in the much-quoted verse Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Paul’s assertion of male and female equality before God is unequivocal. Within marriage too Paul believes in equal rights and responsibilities: ‘The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife’ (1 Cor. 7:3–4).
Second, Paul is without question a believer in women’s ministry. This is clear from Romans 16, where he first commends Phoebe, ‘deacon’ from Cenchreae, for her faithful ministry, referring to her as his ‘helper’ or ‘patron’ (vv. 1–2). He then refers to the famous wife-husband team of Priscilla and Aquila as ‘my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus’. Whether Romans 16:7 shows that Paul believed in female apostles is much less certain, depending both on whether we should read ‘Junia’, feminine, or ‘Junias’, masculine, but also more broadly on how Paul understands the phrase ‘they are outstanding among the apostles’. (Compare Col. 4:15, where it is quite likely that the person referred to is Nympha, a woman, rather than Nymphas, a man. Presumably she played a leading role in the church in her home, though exactly how the house churches functioned and related to the wider Christian community is uncertain.)
But, although it is clear enough that Paul believed in male/female equality and in women’s ministry, other aspects of his teaching are less clear and more controversial. To return first to Galatians 3:28: there has been considerable discussion as to the implications of this Pauline text. The general context of Paul’s remarks is a discussion of salvation in Christ and the immediate context is a reference to baptism. It is quite clear from this (and other Pauline texts) that Paul believes that so far as salvation and church membership are concerned there is complete equality between Jew, Greek, slave, free, male and female. What is less clear is what social implications Paul’s words may have, particularly for the question of male/female relationships.
On the one hand, it is possible to argue that Paul is not speaking about the organization of society at all in this context, but only about salvation, and that we can see from other passages that his convictions about spiritual equality do not lead him to believe in identical leadership roles for men and women in family or church. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that Paul’s teaching on spiritual equality certainly did have social implications for him, as is evident from Galatians itself where he is discussing relationships between Jewish and Gentile Christians. So far as Galatians 3:28 is concerned with its three examples, ‘neither Jew nor Greek … neither slave nor free … neither male nor female’, it is argued that all Christians are willing to acknowledge the social relevance of the first two pairs—‘neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free’—and that it is arbitrary to deny such relevance to the final pair, ‘neither male nor female’. It is acknowledged that Paul in his situation allowed for existing social patterns—male/female, slave/free—to be continued (with transforming safeguards), but it is argued that this was an accommodation to a particular situation in an unideal and fallen world, and that, just as Christians came to recognize that the logic of Paul’s principles entailed the abolition of slavery, so now we are recognizing the logic of his principles for male/female relationships.
This position is plausible, and yet some would raise questions about it, arguing, first, that Paul’s three pairs are not all of the same order, the distinction between slave and free, for example, being the evil creation of sinful man and therefore rightly eliminated, the distinction between male and female, on the other hand, being the good creation of God and impossible and wrong to eliminate. They argue, secondly, that although Paul’s principle of spiritual equality must transform all relationships and rule out all exploitation by Christian leaders (including exploitive employment such as slave-owning), the logic of his position is not obviously the abolition of all differing roles in society: Paul believes in the rightness and value of recognized leadership within the redeemed church of God, as well as within the family (e.g. parents and children) and within the state, and does not see properly exercised authority as conflicting in any way with a mutual and loving recognition of each other as equal members of God’s family.
In reply to this last point, it might be argued that Paul sees authority structures only as a temporary necessity in a fallen world (see the discussion of Genesis 3 above); but it is doubtful if other Pauline passages allow this view, or whether Paul could ever have envisaged the church outgrowing its need for such structures.
The next important passage to consider is 1 Corinthians 11:3–16, where according to the most common interpretation Paul argues that women prophesying or praying in the church should cover their heads with a veil. It seems likely that offence had been caused in the Corinthian church by some women who, in response to the real measure of liberation that they had experienced in Christ and in the church, had broken with the churches’ convention and prayed, like the men, with uncovered head. (See 2 Cor. 3:7–18 for Paul’s explanation of the significance of Christians praying with head uncovered—in contrast to Jewish custom.) In response to this situation, Paul argues that the women should cover their heads. He uses various arguments, appealing to what is ‘natural’ (v. 14) and to what is conventional in the church (v. 16), but more significantly developing an argument about the man being ‘head’ of the woman and appealing to the order of creation. The argument about male ‘headship’ also features in Ephesians 5:23–24. In both cases the male/female relationship is compared to Christ’s relationship to God—his ‘head’—and to the church’s relation to him.
All sorts of questions have been raised about the passage. There are questions of detail: for example, does the Greek word kephale suggest a position of authority, as does the English word ‘head’? Or should it be understood as meaning ‘source’ (referring to the Genesis story about woman being taken out of man) without connotations of authority, as some have proposed? When Paul speaks of a woman who is veiled having ‘authority’ on her head (v. 10), does he mean that in veiling herself she acknowledges her husband’s authority, or does he mean that she thus has an authority of her own? Or does he mean both: by recognizing her husband’s authority, she has delegated authority (cf. Mt. 8:9 for delegated authority)?
There are broader questions also. For example, is Paul here referring to women in general (as we might surmise from his references to creation) or is he referring particularly to wives (as we might infer from his references to the man being the head of the woman)? If his concern was with the relationships of wives and husbands in the congregation, do his remarks have relevance to women in general (including married women)? The fact that the Greek word gune can mean either ‘woman’ or ‘wife’ complicates our interpretative task in this and other passages.
A still more fundamental question concerns the theological force of Paul’s argument: he is dealing with a particular local problem in Corinth, and it is possible to hold that he is not propounding basic principles on male and female relationships so much as seeking to remove an unnecessary cause of stumbling in the congregation. It can be argued that Galatians 3:28 represents Paul’s basic principle on the male/female question—neither male nor female—and that his arguments in 1 Corinthians 11 and elsewhere are not qualifying that in any way, but are rather an application of another of Paul’s basic principles, that of not causing unnecessary offence. Just as he can advise people not to exercise their Christian liberty to eat meat if this will cause others to stumble, so he instructs Christian women to curtail their rights for the sake of harmony, as he also elsewhere urges slaves to submit to their masters. It is true that in the case of men/women relationships he appeals to the stories of creation to back up his case, but, it is suggested, this may be seen as a rabbinic-style argument in which OT texts are used to illustrate a point of view rather than as a profound theological argument about the basis for the view in question.
The alternative view is that Paul is using Genesis in a more than illustrative way, and that his argument in fact reflects a profound theological understanding of male and female relationships (in marriage at least) as patterned on divine relationships: Christ’s relationship to the church is the model of the husband’s relationship with his wife, and Christ’s relationship with the Father, entailing as it does reflected glory, equality and submission, may be seen as the model of the wife’s relationship to her husband (cf. 1 Cor. 11, Eph. 5 and notably 1 Cor. 15:28. A comparable Pauline use of the creation stories may be the ‘one flesh’ teaching in Eph. 5 and elsewhere.)
The next debated Pauline passage is 1 Corinthians 14:33–35. Here Paul appears to take a distinctly negative line on women’s ministry in the church: ‘women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak.… It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.’ The problem with this passage is not simply that most of us today find it uncongenial taken at its face value, but also that it does not seem to fit in with the quite positive things Paul has to say elsewhere about women’s ministry and in particular with what he has said in 1 Corinthians 11 about women praying and prophesying in church. Some scholars have seen the discrepancy between Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14 to be so great that they have supposed 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 to contain a scribal addition to the original Pauline text. That, however, is a drastic solution to the problem, or rather an evasion of the problem, that cannot be recommended. What is much more likely is that Paul is dealing with a particular difficulty in the Corinthian worship rather than laying down general guidelines. He has been discussing various problems in the worship of the Corinthian church from chapter 11 onwards, such as their celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the use of charismatic gifts. 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 should almost certainly be seen in this over-all context; but exactly what the problem with the women was is unclear. Were wives with prophetic gifts publicly questioning their husbands’ prophetic utterances, and so in effect implying that their husbands should submit to them, thus contravening the Pauline teaching about wives submitting to their husbands (cf. 1 Cor. 14:32, 34)? It is possible that Paul is sorting out some particular abuse of this sort in 1 Corinthians 14, rather than prohibiting all open female participation in worship and so contradicting what he said in 1 Corinthians 11. It would seem probable that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul had in mind a particular husband/wife problem, even if his advice also has a bearing on the over-all question of men and women in the church.
Colossians 3:18–19 and the much fuller Ephesians 5:21–33, with its famous comparison of marriage to Christ’s relationship with the church, do not discuss participation in church life, but relationships within the family. However, it should not be assumed that it is of irrelevance to church life, since Paul in 1 Corinthians advocates the same sort of submissiveness on the part of women/wives in the context of worship as he advocates in Ephesians in the context of family life (1 Cor. 14:34), and he appeals to the same principle of ‘headship’ (with its divine parallels: ‘as Christ …’). We have already noted the exegetical questions about the meaning of the word ‘head’ as it is used by Paul. It is hard to avoid the impression that in Ephesians 5 Paul understands the husband to have a leadership role in the family, which the wife should recognize and ‘submit to’.
It is worth noting that for Paul ‘submission’ is not something demeaning or a mark of inferiority: the Greek word used for ‘submit’ means literally something like ‘order-oneself-under’ and is distinct from the word ‘obey’ used by Paul of children and slaves in Ephesians 6:1, 5. In fact, immediately before his instructions for wives, Paul urges all Christians to ‘submit to one another’ (5:21). Submissiveness is thus a Christian virtue enjoined on all, but having particular applications within the family, within the state (Rom. 13:1), within the church (e.g. 1 Cor. 16:16) and even within the Godhead (1 Cor. 15:28). Paul evidently believes in divinely given order and leadership structures within human (and divine) society, which all (male and female) are to recognize. Of course, such structures can be oppressive, thanks to human sinfulness and disobedience; but that is not the divine design, as is clear from Paul’s very strong emphasis on the responsibility of husbands to love their wives sacrificially in Ephesians 5. Far from being the chattel or possession of her husband, the wife is one flesh, one person with her husband, to be loved and cherished accordingly, ‘as Christ loved the church’.
The final Pauline passage to mention is 1 Timothy 2:8–15. Here the topic is again church worship, and the instructions are reminiscent of those in 1 Corinthians 14, with Paul teaching that ‘a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.’ Paul explains this instruction by referring to the order of creation (an argument used also in 1 Corinthians 11) and then by referring to the fact that it was Eve, not Adam, who was deceived in the garden of Eden (an argument not used before). He concludes: ‘But women will be kept safe through childbirth, if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety’.
This passage, like the others, raises specific exegetical questions and more general issues. Specifically, does the Greek word authentein mean simply ‘have authority’ or (more negatively) ‘domineer’? When Paul speaks of woman being saved ‘through childbirth’, does he mean that childbirth in itself is salvific? What then about justification by faith? Does he mean ‘through the birth of the child Jesus’, as some have suggested? Does he mean that motherhood is the characteristic way (though presumably not the exclusive way, since Paul knew of childless saints!) that women work out their salvation in the context of faith, love, holiness and soberness (cf. 1 Tim. 5:13–14)?
The more general issues raised by the passage are the sort of issues we have noted in the context of the 1 Corinthians passages. Is Paul addressing a particular problem or laying down general principles? At least we may conclude that he is talking about public worship in particular: elsewhere he can speak about women having a teaching and a ruling role in the family (1 Tim. 5:10, 14; Tit. 2:3). Is Paul ruling out all female leading in worship, and so taking a different line from 1 Corinthians 11, or is his emphasis on the question of authority and is he excluding women from the role of teaching ‘overseer’, as may be suggested by the following context in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, where the role of the overseer or bishop seems in some respects to be analogous to the role of the father in the family (cf. 1 Tim. 3:5) and characteristically includes teaching (3:2; cf. Tit. 1:9)? There is also the question of his use of the Genesis stories: is he using the OT in a purely illustrative way (some have compared his allegorical argument in Gal. 4:24–31) or is he deriving principles from the creation accounts?
There are other NT passages that could be mentioned, for example 1 Peter 3:1–7, with its emphasis on wifely submission as a means of commending the gospel and with its complementary call to husbands to treat their wives with respect as the ‘weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life’. But we cannot in this editorial go further in exploring particular passages.
As well as the particular passages, there are broader questions of biblical interpretation involved in the man/woman issue. Is there, for example, any significance in the OT restriction of the priesthood to men or in the selection by Jesus of twelve male apostles—the latter despite Jesus’ strikingly liberal attitude towards women? It is possible in both cases to explain the policy concerned as a necessary accommodation to the cultural context of the time rather than as expression of abiding principle, though not everyone would accept such an explanation.
Theologically more fundamental is the question of God’s own revelation of himself as Father and Son. Those in the Catholic tradition of Christendom argue that the priest celebrating the eucharist is representing Christ and that he must therefore be male. Evangelicals who reject the idea of a specifically ministerial and eucharistic priesthood (as opposed to the priesthood of all believers) are unlikely to be impressed by this argument: for them the celebrant at the eucharist does not so much portray Christ in his or her person as point away from him or herself to Christ. However, the question still remains as to whether there is not some significance in God’s revelation of himself in primarily male categories. It would be wrong to suggest that God is revealed in exclusively male categories; there are biblical passages where God’s actions or attitudes are described in distinctively female categories, notably in terms of motherhood (e.g. Is. 42:14; 66:13). We may justifiably conclude that maleness and femaleness reflect facets of the divine nature. But it still remains the case both that God revealed himself in the man Christ Jesus, born of course of a human mother, and that the idea of the Fatherhood of God was central to Jesus’ teaching. The question is what significance should be attached to these facts: was this a case of divine accommodation to the cultural context? If so, can we in a different cultural context substitute mother-language for father-language without loss, as some suggest? Or does God’s revelation of himself as Father and Christ’s incarnation as a man fit in with Paul’s teaching about headship and submission (human fatherhood being a reflection of divine fatherhood)? If maleness and leadership/authority are somehow associated in biblical thought and divine design, then there is an appropriateness about God’s revelation of himself as Father and Son.
Application to today
The hermeneutical task does not end with the elucidation of the original meaning of the biblical passages, though, as we have seen, that is often very difficult in itself. Once the meaning of the original author is established (if it is established!), there is still the task of applying that meaning to today’s situation. Western society in particular is very different from biblical society, and not least so far as women are concerned. Smaller families, mechanical household aids, and longer life expectancy mean that women are less dominated by the demands of the home and motherhood than was formerly the case; developments in education and patterns of employment mean that women are able to participate more widely in the life of society than they once were. Society’s expectations have also changed very considerably, so that it is now acceptable for women to do things that were previously unacceptable. Given this new context, how is the biblical teaching to be applied? Are women to be told that marriage and childbearing are their ministries whether they like it or not? There is certainly reason to think that the Bible values motherhood extremely highly in a way that is at variance with much modern feminist teaching, and Paul’s advice to young widows in 1 Timothy 5:14 is of interest. However, he is there talking to those who have once been married, and his advice to the unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7 about the opportunities afforded by celibacy suggest that marriage and children are not everyone’s calling.
So far as applying the biblical teaching in the church is concerned, that is also not straightforward. Our structures of ministry are often quite different from those which seem to have obtained in Paul’s churches: instead of a group of elders/bishops in each local church, often we have one ‘minister’ in the local church and sometimes a hierarchy of bishops with oversight over a diocese or geographical area. Many of us consider that our modern patterns need reform in various ways (notably the pattern of one-man clerical ministry); but such reform is unlikely to be quick in coming. And the question in the meantime is how to apply the biblical teaching to our situation as it is. The difficulty of doing this is evident from the divergent opinions even among those who consider that the Bible does exclude women from certain leadership roles in the church: some deny women almost any role in the public ministry of the church; others argue that women may minister in speaking and teaching under the authority of a ruling male ‘elder’—she may perhaps be one of a team of elders, but not the presiding elder; some draw the line at celebrating the eucharist, whether because of a Catholic view of representative priesthood or because they see the role of the celebrant as analogous to that of the father at the head of his table; others with an episcopal system of church government believe that a woman may be in charge of a local church, but that the bishop, who has oversight over her, must be male.
Those who believe that there are no theological barriers to female ministry naturally have fewer problems of application; but even they have to face questions about the appropriate timing for change. In particular, is it appropriate to press ahead with dismantling all the traditional restrictions on women’s ministry if this will cause division and stumbling in the church? Paul considered it a matter of principle that we should consider the weaker brother, restricting our freedom and rights if necessary. He valued unity in the church much more highly than do many Protestants. If Paul’s own teaching about women being submissive was a proper and justifiable accommodation to his context, may it still be right in our context? Against this it may be argued that the restriction of women in the church is in itself causing offence, so that we have to choose between one offence and another; and also that ‘the weaker brother’ argument must be used with care, since it can be used to oppose almost any change and so to stifle growth in the life and ministry of the church.
Some concluding observations
It is not the purpose of this editorial to come up with definitive answers to the questions discussed, nor would the author be competent or sufficiently well read to do so. Its purpose has been more to describe some of the issues involved and to give readers a rough and ready map of the complex terrain. But, although no neat solutions can be offered, some concluding remarks may be in order. First, when faced with very complicated issues we may sometimes be tempted to despair of finding any solutions to our questions and so to acquiesce even in hurtful divisions. We must resist this temptation, sincerely seeking God’s truth and his will, in the confidence that he wants the church to be united and that he has given the Holy Spirit to guide us. But it is worth emphasizing again that, if we are to make progress with a controversial and emotive subject like this, we must approach it with a humble desire to listen to Scripture, however uncomfortable that may be to us, with a serious commitment to listen in love to others from whom we differ, and with a willingness to change and grow in our understanding and outlook.
Second, it is important to realize that, although there are many difficult and controversial questions, there are also some things that are clear and that need emphasizing: these include the equality of men and women as created by God and as redeemed in Christ, the importance of men and women in Christian ministry, and the need for mutual respect and love in society, church and family. It is important to give substance and not just lip-service to these things, and it is right for men in particular to recognize with shame that they have often failed badly and exploited what Peter calls the ‘weaker sex’.
Third, it is a fact of life, created by God, that men and women are different. This point should not be exaggerated—men and women have an enormous number of things in common as equal members of the human race; but in certain important respects they are different and they are unable to fulfil the role of the opposite sex. This is obvious on the biological level: men cannot fulfil that most important (and costly) role of bearing and suckling children; it is also widely agreed, by non-Christians as well as Christians, to be true on a psychological level, even though there is a lot of controversy about which male and female characteristics are innate and which reflect the conditioning of society. Christians see the God-given differences between men and women as part of God’s very good creation, as something to be respected and rejoiced in (though not to be exploited or misused, as has so often been the case). There are two opposite dangers to be avoided so far as male/female differences are concerned: the one danger is to exaggerate the differences and to exploit them, as men have often done when treating women as playthings for their pleasure or as bearers of their children rather than as equal partners. The opposite danger is to minimize the differences and to see them as an encumbrance to be concealed (e.g. in unisex styles of dress, etc.) or ignored; it is particularly serious how motherhood, a wonderful and high calling in the Christian view (as well as a painful and demanding one), has become undervalued in many circles (though that tendency probably has as much to do with a loss in Western society of a strong concept of the family as with a particular view of the relationships of the sexes: personal and sexual fulfilment are seen as the all-important aims of marriage, with parenthood and the creating of a new family being optional extras). Christians can and should agree in the recognition of sexual differences as part of the glory of God’s creation. Where Christians may—and do—disagree is over what implications, if any, these differences have for the ordering of family and church life.
Our fourth point is another on which people of differing theological perceptions should be able to agree, namely that the church ought to take practical and effective steps to recognize and honour women’s ministry in the church. Not that the church should accede to a desire by women or men for status in God’s church: our Christian calling, which we so often forget, is to take the lowest place of service, not to seek for power or authority over others. It is a fact of church history that women have often been outstanding in this respect: they have served at great cost in missionary and other situations with little recognition in the church. But, although humility and self-effacement are Christian virtues to be sought and striven for, it is emphatically not a Christian virtue to dishonour others and to fail to recognize their gifts and ministries.
It is a fact that women’s ministries have very often not been honoured as they should have been, and this has caused real pain. Part of the problem has been the church’s failure to live out the NT teaching about the church as a body and in particular the clericalization of the church’s ministry: all lay ministry has tended to be seen as second class (whether male or female), and ordination has come to have a misplaced mystique about it. As a church we need to take seriously the fact that the ministry of the mother who brings up a family in the fear of the Lord is quite as vital and first class a ministry as that of the minister who baptizes, marries, buries and preaches. (The Roman Catholic reverence for Mary, though questionable in various ways, has good aspects, not least in giving recognition to motherhood.) We need also to support mothers practically, since bringing up children is a much less glamorous ministry than many others, makes enormous demands, often involves loneliness, and does not always bring quick rewards in terms of personal fulfilment and enjoyment.
The affirmation of the significance of motherhood must not, on the other hand, be allowed to lead to the undervaluing of other ministries for women, whether married or single, or to the effective denial of the varied gifts that God has given to women. Such denial is wrong in principle and hurtful in practice, both to the women affected (especially single and childless women) but also to the life of the whole church, which is thereby impoverished. The church must give proper recognition and support to all women’s ministry, including ‘professional’ ministries. There may be questions about whether male and female ministries should be identical; there should be no problem in principle about the ordination of women to ministry, and no question about equality of men and women in the faith and service of Christ.
Finally, a comment about so-called sexist language. Although opinions may differ on the question of women in ministry, the biblical language about God as Father and Son should surely be regarded as sacrosanct. However we understand the divine revelation, we dare not substitute our images of God for the divinely revealed images: the danger of idolatry is too great, and it is human arrogance to suppose that we can better the divine revelation. Using inclusive language in worship is a different thing altogether: whether we like it or not, one of the effects of the feminist movement has been to make the generic use of the English word ‘man’ problematic in many contexts. We may regret that we can no longer speak of ‘loving our fellow-men’ without some people feeling that this is to leave out our ‘fellow-women’; but it is a fact that language changes, and it is hardly a disaster if modern English is coming more into line with other languages (including Hebrew and Greek) in using different words for ‘man = human being’ and ‘man = a male’. Certainly it should be a small thing for Christians to seek to avoid causing hurt and offence in their choice of words.
The question of man and woman in the church is often divisive, and sometimes painfully so. All of us, both men and women, do well to take to heart Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:12: ‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.’ Or, as he puts it more briefly in Ephesians 5:21: ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’.